Aspire Trainee Guest Blog

Inspiring monthly blogs from Aspire trainees and project participants

We're inviting Aspire trainees and project participants to write or contribute to a series of blogs for Aspire over the coming months focused on raising awareness of the realities of homelessness and other serious barriers to employment and life chances. Trainees' blogs draw on their lived experiences. We hope you enjoy reading them and can share them with your colleagues, friends and family.

Aspire Oxford: working to change lives through sport

20th February.

Biographies provided by John Sumner and Rennell Johnson - Aspire project participants on Active Body, Healthy Mind project.

Aspire has been helping local people to get active and get healthy with incredible results! Here’s two amazing examples of how our Active Body, Healthy Mind project is transforming lives:

John’s story

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My name is John Sumner and for as long as I remember I have suffered from depression and mental health issues. At one point I was so low that I was self-harming. I started to engage with Active Body, Healthy Mind in June 2016, when I tried the Boxercise session that was running. I really enjoyed the session and it was a good outlet for me to channel my energy. I always had a lot of fun, as well as getting fit at the same time.

The football classes were my favourite, and together with the other activities they have really helped improve both my communication skills and my ability to work as part of a team.

Because I enjoyed the football so much, Jamie asked me whether I would like to attend a Level 1 FA coaching course, and I jumped at the opportunity. The course was really enjoyable and the coaches were great at encouraging me. I was very happy to be told I had passed and that I was now a Level 1 coach! My aim now is to pursue my Level 2 and keep moving forward. I now know that if I put my mind to it, I can achieve as much as I want!

Rennel’s story

Rennell_Johnson_ABHM_participant.jpgMy name is Rennel Johnson and I am not ashamed to say that I have suffered with mental health and addiction issues for a long time.

I started to engage with Active Body, Healthy Mind in July 2016 at the Ley Community through Jamie Hamilton and Lee Anderton of Aspire. The football sessions are brilliant for me, as I always feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I have never been given the opportunity to play football with people in the same situation as me before, and I feel this has been a huge benefit. I really feel that the team understands who I am.

I have played in the Bobbi League and this has been excellent, as I watched the team gel together and improve week after week. I even scored a great goal! I now feel a lot fitter and more motivated to face each day.

I was asked to go on a Level 1 FA coaching course and I was over the moon! Nobody has ever believed in me like this before, and it’s really helped my confidence grow even more.

I feel the course has brought out some real creativity in me and I am now confident in taking training sessions. I aim to use this course at my children's school, where I am hoping to be able to teach football on a voluntary basis. I then aim to take my Level 2 course, and eventually hope to find employment as a football coach.

My family are so happy with me now, and I am also proud of myself for what I have achieved in a short time. I have Aspire and Active Body, Healthy Mind to thank for this. I am now looking forward to my future for the first time in a long time!

Changing lives through sport

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Everybody has the capacity to be remarkable - and employers have a fundamental role to play.

28th November

I am writing my first blog post from the ‘School of Social Entrepreneurs’ in London. It is an inspiring setting; founded in 1997 by the serial social entrepreneur, Michael Young (founder of Which? and the Consumers’ Association), it supports people who use entrepreneurial approaches to tackle complex social problems and promotes a fair and equal society where the potential of all people is fully recognised.

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But what has this got to do with Oxford, I hear you say? And recruitment? Our city of gleaming spires, world-beating universities and science parks? Life’s good here for everyone; Oxfordshire has virtually no unemployment with more jobs than working age adults in fact. So, what’s the problem?

I’m sorry to burst a bubble here, but Oxford has a big problem, socially. And how employers recruit can exacerbate the problem or can be part of the solution to tackling inequality and poverty in our city. And more than this, it will be necessary if they want to survive and thrive.

I’m still surprised by how many people living in Oxford don’t see it. Oxford is perhaps the most unequal and socially divided city in England, with entrenched poverty afflicting East Oxford. It is a city where residents a short bus ride away from each other have a differing life expectancy of more than 8 years. It is a city with 10 wards in the most 20% deprived in England, where 30% of people are on low incomes and 25% of children live below the poverty line – virtually all in East Oxford. It is a city where rough sleeping has increased by 50% year on year since 2012; a city which has one of the highest rates in the south of England for young people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) for 6 months or more; and a city which has one of the highest rates of crack and opiate use in the country, with 16.6 users per 1,000 residents.

So despite first, shiny appearances there are complex, pressing social problems in this city. And these are set to worsen, with single parents in particular affected by the new benefits cap and the imminent closure of local children’s centres and swingeing cuts to homeless support services in the pipeline. We need to act now, together, to arrest this unacceptable and unnecessary trend.

For now, let’s return to the labour market in Oxfordshire. Unemployment is at an all-time low - apparently. But what do we mean by this? The jobseekers’ register in the county, at less than 2,500, is one of the lowest recorded in the UK. Fact. This is the sunny figure you will see quoted in the local media. But what goes unreported is the fact that there are over 16,000 people in Oxfordshire on a long-term unemployment benefit, typically Employment Support Allowance (ESA). A figure that increased by nearly 10% in 2015.

Many of those on ESA are not fit for work and rightly should not be looking for it. But there are many thousands of local people who could and want to work – as of Spring 2016, there were 9,800 ‘economically inactive people’ wanting a job. They may be vulnerable to homelessness, juggling care responsibilities at home, recovering from addiction or a spell of long-term unemployment. They may have been in prison. They may have left school with little self-confidence and few qualifications. They may struggle with English and adapting to our work culture. But they all have potential; they all have the capacity to be loyal, remarkable employees. What they need is the right level of support, engagement and opportunity.

Securing sustainable, paid employment would be a critical, life changing step forward for them. It would also support the growth of a more resilient, inclusive local economy, with less taxpayer money spent on expensive interventions in the criminal justice, health and social services sectors as well as seeing individuals contribute through taxes to the Exchequer. Enabling their employment would be a first step towards tackling the social problems that currently blight our city.

I’m not suggesting employers do this purely out of the kindness of their own hearts. It will be good for their productivity too. All the evidence suggests that people from disadvantaged groups can become some of your best employees. They go the extra mile to secure results, tend to stay in a job for longer, have a strong commitment to their employer and lower rates of absenteeism. BITC research shows clear business benefits in becoming more inclusive, with over 90% of businesses saying it’s been advantageous and 92% saying it’s enhanced their reputation. Two thirds report that it has boosted skills levels across their workforce and around half say it’s benefited them financially.

It is also about taking pride in being socially responsible. Six million of us will be homeless at some point in our lives. 97% of homeless people want to work, but a recent survey indicates that only 7% of employers say they recruit homeless people. Giving people from disadvantaged groups a chance can help get their lives back on track. It is not only good for individuals but also for society. For instance, employment is proven to reduce re-offending by 33-50%. So, becoming more representative of the communities you serve doesn’t just help change lives – it can help strengthen your business and have huge benefits to society too.

Perhaps more pressingly for employers in Oxford however, is acknowledging that they face a fast-growing recruitment crisis. Employee retention is a big problem for Oxford employers offering entry level positions and low wages, given the sky high cost of housing and living. The churn rate is particularly high in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, where staff turnover ranges from 35% to 60% - unsustainable for any business. And Oxfordshire has a very high job density, with 115 jobs available for every 100 residents of working age. Throw in the alarming fact that the working age population is set to contract significantly over the next 10 years due to a rapidly ageing population – the fast-growing age group by a wide margin is the over 85s - and with Brexit there is likely to be much reduced access to migrant labour, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise supply and demand are moving quickly in opposite directions.

For any business to survive and thrive it needs to learn faster than the rate of change happening around it. What we are witnessing in the recruitment market is a failure to adapt; a recruitment agency model that too often undermines employment rights and drives precarious workers into the arms of exploitative companies is not fit for purpose. It is neither serving employers nor enabling local people to move into employment. Traditional recruitment agencies struggle to access or understand disadvantaged people and the potential assets they can be for employers as talented, motivated and productive employees. They forget that everybody has the capacity to be remarkable.

Social entrepreneurs combine a mission of calling out unacceptable social and public policy failures – child poverty, homelessness, substance misuse – and an ability to spot gaps in the market in which they can seek to innovate to do something positive to redress these shortcomings. A gap in the market is clearly presenting itself here – for an effective intermediary to help match employers to employees, in entry level, labour intensive sectors, from care to hospitality to retail to warehousing. To encourage and enable employers to change the way they recruit, so they engage with new groups of people to meet their recruitment needs now and in the future. Or face an existential crisis plagued by miserable employee retention rates and an inability to fill growing gaps in their workforce

This is the driving force behind the national employment campaign ‘See Potential’. It is backed by entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson, Deborah Meaden and Simon Cowell, showcasing the talents and business benefits of hiring people from disadvantaged groups. It reinforces the social mission of my employment charity and social enterprise, Aspire Oxford. Together, we should and can do more to celebrate the work of employers who provide jobs and training opportunities to people from disadvantaged groups, showing other businesses why it’s worth their while reviewing their recruitment practices and illustrating the personal, societal and business benefits of giving people a chance in the world of work.

We believe that everybody has the capacity to be remarkable. If you’re interested to find out more about how you could change lives locally through your recruitment, please come and talk to us at Aspire Oxford.

Paul Roberts, Chief Operating Officer (Employment & Partnerships), Aspire Oxford

Coping with poor mental health

14th September

By Hannah, Aspire trainee

“One of the things I admire about Aspire is their ability to diversify and consider all aspects of a trainee’s life and possible barriers to employment, including mental health & wellbeing, as part of their engagement and support package. So, I’ve chosen to use my September blog as an opportunity to give an insight into what it’s like to have poor mental health and how it can affect someone.

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Poor mental health is something that affects so many people at some stage in their lives; one in four people are affected by some kind of mental health problem in their lifetime, according to research conducted by the national mental health charity, Mind.  And it’s more likely that someone will have poor mental health and wellbeing when they are faced with other, stressful issues such as homelessness, addiction, an inability to manage relationships and so many other barriers to living a normal life.

When I first got unwell I felt like my life was over. Everything I was ‘supposed’ to be doing could no longer go ahead. I felt lost. I only really started to find myself again after getting involved with Aspire.

I have been diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder. I go through highs and lows with this illness. When I am high I also have psychosis. Psychosis causes me to lose touch with reality; I start to believe things that are not true. I then think people are ‘after’ me and become fearful for my life. Each time this has happened it has resulted in intervention from my mental health team and quite often the Police.

I receive medication to calm me down and quiet the voices in my mind. The nature of bi-polar disorder is that when you have a high it is often followed by a bout of depression. It was a depression that resulted in the breakdown of my relationship with my family. This resulted in me becoming homeless.  

I then found a place in a mental health supported hostel. My confidence was gone, I felt ugly, useless and as though all I was doing was draining societies resources by still being alive. I was fearful of leaving my bedroom. I only went out when I needed to buy food. All I wanted to do was sleep so I didn’t have to think anymore. It was at this point my link worker from the hostel referred me to Aspire, the employment and recovery charity.

As I started to engage with Aspire and leave the house to go out and work with the gardening team I slowly began to regain some form of self-confidence. My first day of work with Aspire was in August 2011, five years later I have nine months of my Mathematics degree remaining, I have had two paid jobs, and I am contributing to society again.

How? Aspire paid for me to do a continuing education course in mathematics. This gave me the confidence and self-belief to apply to go to university. This shows Aspire’s ability to tailor their service depending on the persons needs. To Aspire, you are not just a national insurance number, you are a human being that deserves to move on from a difficult past and into a brighter future.

The sad thing about mental health is that it doesn’t just go away. It is something that, like addiction, you learn to manage. I have had several relapses in my life. I have been able to cope with more and more ease as time goes on. I make sure I am getting enough exercise as this makes a huge difference to mental wellbeing. I also make sure the people around me are aware of my triggers so that, if I do relapse they know how to cope. The key to coping with something as scary as bi-polar is having a network of people around you with your best interests at heart. Aspire are part of this network for me and I have nothing but positive things to say about this charity.

Long may their work continue! 

15 years of new beginnings

28th July

By Hannah, Aspire trainee

Next month gives us a chance to celebrate 15 years of Aspire Oxford. From humble beginnings we have grown into an award winning charity that offers a personalised service to help people back into work.

My name is Hannah. I became a trainee with Aspire in 2011. After struggling with severe mental health issues which resulted in homelessness, Aspire was a lifeline for me. I became homeless in January 2011. I luckily found a place in a mental health supported hostel in February of the same year. My link worker at this hostel recommended Aspire - it was the best move I had made since my first breakdown in 2009.

Starting slowly with gardening, I slowly returned to a fully functioning and contributing member of society. It's a real privilege to still be involved with Aspire 5 years later. 

Aspire is the employment and recovery charity that Oxford so desperately needs. Oxford is a city in housing crisis; homeless people line the streets waiting for spaces to open up in the hostels. Rough sleeping is on the increase and Aspire’s work has never been more important. Aspire understands that working together in a fluid way is critical to their success. The relationships they have built with the likes of Turning Point, Response and Green Square have helped them create a thriving social enterprise.

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This year is a time to celebrate an established charity that is doing their job. The personalised experience that Aspire provides is what, I believe, saved me from a life on benefits. I cannot even begin to thank them for the good they have done in my life. Even now, 5 years after I started and 15 years after Aspire began they still support me. I have had the occasional wobble, as anyone with my condition (bi-polar) will have. Aspire has never withdrawn support, they have never been too busy. This is KEY.

The system they have is one that works. I am excited to see what the future holds for this fantastic organisation. As Aspire continue to move forward in their journey I hope that their vision will be realised. I hope that their long cited plan – pardon the pun - will become a truth. 

Aspire's Community Transport Service

13th April 2016

This month at Aspire we are celebrating our Community Transport service.  Aspire’s Community Transport bus is now the only functioning Dial a Ride in the whole of Oxfordshire, so it has become an even more valuable and vital community resource.  Oxfordshire County Council describe the service as, “safe, cost effective and flexible transport run by the community for the community.”

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Aspire’s Dial a Ride bus started in May 2015 and provides a vital resource for the elderly people of Oxford City who cannot easily access public transport. This is often because they live too far from the nearest bus stop or have limited mobility so can’t easily get on and off a public bus.

The Aspire Dial a Ride service makes a huge difference to local elderly people. It helps to overcome the barriers of social isolation. It reduces the impact of loneliness and isolation which can so easily lead to a reduction in health and wellbeing and quality of life.

One of the ladies who uses the Community Transport bus is called Elizabeth. Elizabeth is 86 years old and her family lives in Buckinghamshire so she doesn’t have any support locally. She is scared of using a public bus as she’s had six hip operations and relies on crutches or a walker to move around. Elizabeth has used Aspire’s Community Transport bus weekly for 18 years. She uses the bus once a week to do her grocery shopping at the supermarket.

Elizabeth says: “This is a most wonderful service run by the most kind gentlemen...I’m not ready to sit in a chair or lie in my bed for the rest of my life.”

The Aspire Dial a Ride bus has its very own driver, Tony Tinkham, and two on board assistants, whose job it is to help customers on and off the bus and generally make sure everyone is happy and well. I have first-hand information that this generally involves lots of chatting, and laughter! Oh, yes and a few sweets and treats tend to be shared around.

As you may by now gather, this bus is an absolute lifeline for its users -  currently about eighteen a day. The bus usually undertakes trips to supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s and social clubs where our customers can have lunch and meet friends.

The Aspire Dial a Ride bus has funding for another year from Oxfordshire County Council. This is the last Dial a Ride service left in Oxfordshire, so we really need you to get behind the service, spread the word about how important it is and contact Oxfordshire County Council to let them know we want this valuable social resource to continue. If you would like to use this service now, please contact Oxfordshire County Council to register for the service.

Aspire’s heroes

15th March 2016

Here at Aspire we value our community of supporters and we are particularly proud of our links with the students of Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University.  There is a genuine concern from the students about the severe cutbacks for those who find themselves homeless. It is amazing to know that this generation of students are so passionate and concerned about the situation of homelessness in Oxford, across Oxfordshire, and indeed the whole country. This concern is not just academic (excuse the pun) but very real.  Of course we are hoping that these valuable links with students may help to produce some future policy makers who can help shape a brighter and more equitable society.

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Aspire’s student volunteers

Many of Aspire’s volunteers come through ‘The Oxford Hub,’ an Oxford charity which links up Oxford University students with voluntary placements. On Your Doorstep (OYD), newly headed by Jacob Vivien, (Hertford College) following the awesome work of outgoing Chair, Freya Turner, is the lobbying campaigning arm of the Student Union. In the last year this group has had some fantastic results through their lobbying. Some of the results of their work, and persistence include:

The university students helped to successfully block the controversial PSPO bill which would have meant that homeless people would be fined up to a thousand pounds and removed from the city central bounds if they were considered to be rough sleeping or persistently begging.

Concern was voiced around the interpretation of this legislation, and the detrimental outcomes of criminalising the homeless and destitute which could push them into prison and create a vicious circle of deprivation and debt. Unfortunately, since this initial victory, the bill was re- submitted by the council before Christmas, and the PSPO bill was passed with a minor but still unattainable amendment that the homeless rough sleeper may now be fined £100. This bill also enables the police to ban homeless people from the city centre, pushing them into Oxford’s suburbs and effectively ghettoising them.

Although no one wants to see persistent begging or Oxford’s streets overrun with rough sleepers, we feel the causes of homelessness should be addressed rather than vulnerable people being further isolated from their own community.

Thanks to the amazing efforts of our student supporters, over 70,000 people signed a student led petition against the council’s proposals.

Not just homeless

Some of our student supporters participated in the making of Aspire and OxHoP’s collaboratively funded film project, “Not just homeless”. They did an amazing job, and also worked very hard to promote and set up showings of the film.  By now you can see how huge the impact of the work of these awesome young people is, and how proud we are of their links with us.

Last but not least, we have fantastic support from the Oxford University’s Homeless Action Group. This group are involved in several ways; they give individual support to Aspire trainees, helping with crucial tasks like job-searching and the updating of their CVs. We have at least one student in each day helping our trainees in our Learning Lounge.

Finally, they fundraise (recently a Jazz Night was held at Freud’s in Oxford on the 26th February) and they attend demonstrations voicing concerns against current financial cutbacks. We think they are awesome – a huge thank you to each and every one of them!

Clare Ellis

A Day in the Life of Aspire

12th February 2016

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Outside it is cold and damp, rain is pounding down heavily. The river Cherwell is running high and choppy. It makes me shudder to think how dismal it must be for Oxford’s homeless people. It was tragic to hear of the death of a 50-year-old Swindon rough sleeper, who was recently found dead in the John Street car park with the first snap of very cold weather.

Oxfordshire Guardian cites that the numbers of homeless rough sleepers have risen dramatically - one estimate states that numbers in Oxford have risen by 50% during the last twelve months, partly due to insecure work and low wages. If you are concerned about anyone sleeping rough in Oxford, please contact the SPOT team to inform the local council or Thames Valley Police.

As a country how can we continue to let people sleep in the street in the twenty- first century? How can we keep closing the homeless hostels when there is such desperate need? It is hard to comprehend. I can’t help wonder how the Oxford Homeless Organisations will be impacted by the cuts to vital services if such crippling financial cutbacks keep going forwards.

The situation may look bleak, but inside Aspire it’s a different story.  It is a Friday morning and the building is buzzing. The cleaning team, made up of Aspire trainees, is blitzing the premises. Aspire is housed in a former Victorian primary school building which has high ceilings and many tiny panes of glass safety glass (the type that looks like squared maths paper) and trust me being slightly aged the building can not the easiest to clean! However not according to this amazing team - they are blitzing the work.

One of the workers checks their watch as I walk past and comments that the washing will be done in five minutes! At Aspire the washing of the work overalls is managed by the trainees themselves to promote independence and also to assist those who don’t have easy access to a washing machine.

Inside the office is a hive of activity; there are staff meetings, clients popping in and out, telephones ringing and people talking in earnest. Fundraising and planning is in full swing. One thing is clear. People are passionate about what they are doing here. Aspire is a charity and social enterprise that passionately cares.

Outside the building the Aspire Collection Vans are in full swing delivering their collection service, and the Grounds Maintenance team are tackling their work with gusto despite the weather. During the morning, representatives from the Oxford Homeless Project call in to hand in a donation for one of Aspire’s trainees to fund a cinema trip for him and his son.  They have provided money for the trip, including treats.  It is wonderful, everyone’s heart lifts. We know the impact this kind of kindness makes.

This is why people at Aspire are so passionate, because they care about people, and by reading this, so do you. Together we can change the world!

By supporting Aspire Oxford in our 15th Anniversary Year, you can be sure that you will be part of a committed and inspiring group of people who are achieving real change every day. Thank you for being part of our journey.

By Clare Ellis

Celebrating 15 years of transforming lives in Oxfordshire

18th January 2016

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Happy New Year from Aspire Oxford! We have a lot to celebrate this year, as 2016 marks our 15th Anniversary!

Since Aspire began in 2001, we have supported thousands of Oxfordshire’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. With your support, they have achieved educational and vocational qualifications, thrived in work experience programmes and increased their confidence and self-esteem. We have helped the unemployed into employment, the homeless into housing and we’ve seen long cycles of offending and addiction broken. Thanks to you, together we are building a stronger, safer and more productive local community.

We couldn’t have made this extraordinary impact without the support of our local community behind us. But unfortunately with the proposed cuts to homeless pathway organisations, the most vulnerable in our society will need your support more than ever before. So what can we do? Let’s make 2016 a bumper birthday year.

Please join me in supporting Aspire this year to mark 15 years of transforming local lives:

15 ways you can support Aspire for our 15th birthday year!

  1. Nominate Aspire as your organisation's Charity of the Year.
  2. Use Aspire’s professional services: grounds maintenance, removals or decorating.
  3. Offer work placements to an Aspire trainee
  4. Fundraise for us: from cake sales and quizzes to skydiving and marathons, we’ll support you every step of the way!
  5. Become a Friend of Aspire
  6. Take part in our brand new Aspire Accumulator Challenge
  7. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter
  8. Share your skills by volunteering
  9. Employers can attend our Job Fairs or offer supported work placements
  10. Invite Aspire to speak at your club, society, school, or company
  11. Donate to our charity shop or drop in to find a bargain!
  12. Sponsor a trainee
  13. Leave a gift to Aspire in your will
  14. Read Aspire’s monthly blog and share it with your friends!
  15. Sign up for our regular newsletters and stay in touch

By supporting Aspire Oxford in our 15th Anniversary Year, you can be sure that you will be part of a committed and inspiring group of people who are achieving real change every day. Thank you for being part of our journey.

By Clare Ellis

Hope and new beginnings

7th December 2015

"As December marches on, the shops on the high street are in full Christmas swing. The Christmas windows are sparkling and shiny, making everything look brand new. Slade’s infamous, Christmas classic, “I wish it could be Christmas Every day,” heralds the onslaught of the forthcoming festivities as reindeer antlers and Santa hats begin to make a resurgence at office parties.

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I myself am a great charity shopper. There are several reasons for that - the first being that I enjoy supporting the many great causes that are out there by buying and donating goods, and of course on a limited income it is a great way to afford things that I need.

Secondly I love to re-cycle, or up-cycle, to make something new out of something old. Earlier this week I found myself tearing apart an old Christmas decoration, and restringing it through a wicker wreath which I put onto the front door. I found myself thinking that this is what Christmas is all about - turning the old into new. Re- birth and re-generation. Light from dark, hope from sorrow.

In some of the support groups I attend, talk is turning to worries about coping with Christmas. How can I pay for presents this year? How can I deal with a certain family member? How can I cope with Christmas when I am homeless? How can I stay free from alcohol when it is all around me?

The answers are often similar. You can’t change the situation today, but you can change how you react to it.  You can’t change others, but you can change yourself, and by changing yourself, others will change in response to your new behaviour. Don’t live in the past, just live in the moment. Take actions only to improve today and tomorrow. At this moment you are sober, so don’t pick up the first drink. Then you will stay sober. Sounds easy doesn’t it?

Of course the reality is never quite as easy, but that is why charities like Aspire are so valuable and make such a powerful difference to people’s lives. Maybe a wrong turn has been taken in the past? You want to work, more than anything, but who will give you that second, or maybe third chance? Without charities like Aspire and Oxford Homeless Pathways, many people would be left on the streets. If their work didn’t happen, we would have to ask ourselves what kind of society do we live in?

Not all of us are like the glistening shop window. Many of us who have come through tough times are more like the recreated Christmas wreath, but as we all know, not everything that glitters is gold and treasure can be found in the most unlikely places.

As Paul Roberts at Aspire often advocates, the workers that come from Aspire and who are given true opportunities to work are an absolute asset to any company. They are highly motivated and determined team members. If you want to do something powerful this Christmas time, support Aspire to help vulnerable people to re build their lives, confidence, and skills to become active functioning working members of society again.

Please support our Gift of Hope Christmas Appeal and give hope and new beginnings. Thank you."

Clare Ellis

Room at the Inn?

10th November 2015

"In the words of the great author, Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times and the worst of times”. Much of that sentiment can be applied to Christmas.

Christmas can be a magical time.  But as we all know it can also be a particularly sad, stressful and difficult time.  Illness, bereavement, financial worries, loneliness, and isolation from family are just the tip of the iceberg for many people. However imagine these difficulties compounded by not having a safe place to sleep or live.  How would you cope, if it happened to you?

I never thought it would happen to me or my family when on the twenty first of December, over twenty years ago I gave birth to my own son, Joseph.  He was three weeks early and was born into a very very cold and snowy Christmas scene. Too excited to sleep I talked to my new son, and counted his fingers and toes in wonder.  From the top floor of the John Radcliffe maternity ward we could see Oxford’s twinkling lights and snow covered spires as the snow fell heavily into thick drifts upon the ground.  Idyllic.

That Christmas, Joseph, (Joe) slept under a twinkling Christmas tree in a Moses basket .  I have never known such joy and love and hope as that of the birth of a baby.  Of course as we all know, another baby boy, an incredibly special baby boy, the baby Jesus was also born at Christmas time.

When I became homeless with my two sons as a result of fleeing domestic abuse it was the start of a new life for us, and I was incredibly grateful to be safe at last, but Christmas is such a difficult time to be homeless. Walking the brightly lit streets of Oxford and seeing families together holding hands, little children’s faces lit up with excitement, I felt so much sorrow and loss  - for the childhoods I wanted for my children as the shocking reality of what had happened began to sink into all of us.  Attending a charity bingo I had to hide in the toilets as tears overcame me at seeing the bright happy faces of young children, like mine had once been.

That Christmas, it was so hard not having our most special possessions like my two son’s handmade Christmas decorations and photographs. With hardly any clothes or money, I experienced overwhelming feelings of failure as a parent, shame for our situation, and fear for our futures.

Thanks to the support I’ve received, this year it will be a very different Christmas - I will be in my own home. Home and family is everything to me. Home now means warmth and security. I’m so excited about Christmas that the decorations are already up - it’s early, I know but for me there is such magic in the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. The presents underneath won’t be expensive, but they don’t need to be. We have a home, each other and a future to look forward to.

This Christmas, please support Oxford Homeless Pathways and Aspire to give the skills and support needed to lead people away from lives dominated by homelessness, fear, addiction, abuse, loneliness and loss.   Please give them the chance of a new life, with work, self -respect, and a place to call home.  Be the innkeepers that lead Joseph and Mary into their stable and find a place for Oxford’s homeless people into your heart. Turn a life around this Christmas.

Thank you."

Clare Ellis